A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend throughout Europe. This part will feature matches taking place on Friday January 17th and Saturday January 18th.
Sporting vs. Benfica
The famous Lisbon Derby is renewed tomorrow, but hardly in the circumstances we are used to seeing it. Benfica are four points clear at the top and Sporting are far away from being contenders. What was once a potential title-deciding match is now far from it.
Benfica are top of the league, four points clear of rivals Porto. They have lost once all season, a 2-0 loss to Porto. They have struggled at times, especially recently, but the quality is there. They have moved on from young starlet Gedson Fernandes, but brought in ex-Dortmund midfielder Julian Weigl, who will undoubtedly be a key contributor in that team. More of a miss, however, will be striker Raul De Tomas, who left Benfica for Espanyol at the beginning of the month. Their defense, anchored by Ruben Dias, will be the key to controlling the match and allowing their attack to find their way through.
Sporting have fallen by the wayside over the last few years, and this season has been embarrassing given the history and stature of the club. While they have won three of their last five, the two losses include one to rivals Porto and another to mid-table Gil Vicente. They are 16 points off the top of the league and 12 off of Champions League qualification, and they have fallen away from the pace set by Benfica and Porto. On top of this, club captain and star midfielder Bruno Fernandes looks to be off to Manchester United. While Fernandes will be staying to play against Benfica, the stress and unknowns that continue to circle around Sporting makes any outside observer not confident in their ability to restore themselves as a title contender.
Prediction: Both teams have reasons to doubt their form heading into this game, and derbies can sometimes have the “throw the records out” cliche attached to it. At the end of the day, however, quality will prevail. Benfica have more quality in their team, so they will be the winner.
Sporting 0-1 Benfica
Schalke vs. Monchengladbach
Bundesliga returns from the winter break with a very interesting match up between two teams in the top five. Gladbach want to keep pace with Leipzig at the top and Schalke want to keep pace with rivals Dortmund for the final Champions League place.
Schalke have had issues finding consistency throughout the season, but they are also unbeaten in their last eight home matches. They have also enhanced their team with the addition of forward Michael Gregoritsch and center back Jean-Clair Todibo, both joining die Knappen on loan until the end of the season. These two, paired with Ozan Kabak, Jonjoe Kenny, Daniel Caligiuri, and Amine Harit, forms a very strong spine of a team that has every chance to challenge for the Champions League places. A key to their success in this game, as well as for the rest of the season, will be how Gregoritsch is able to work alongside creative players like Harit and fellow attacker Guido Burgstaller. Schalke have scored fewer goals than every top four team, so they will have to improve their production going forward to break into the top four.
Gladbach went into the winter break having achieved their third-best first half of a season in club history. Their success has been driven by a strong attacking partnership between French duo Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram, each with over five league goals and five league assists on the season. In defense, Germany international Matthias Ginter is enjoying another fine season, while newcomer Ramy Bensebaini is also enjoying his life in Germany. Bensebaini will be out due to injury, but fellow new-ish arrival Stefan Lainer is fit to return to the team. Thuram and Plea will have to reignite their partnership after the winter break to ensure Gladbach can stay on pace in the title race.
Prediction: These new signings could be critical for Schalke’s chances at a top four finish. However, it might take some time for them to find their feet and produce. Gladbach have done very well in the first half of the season, but they could be very susceptible to a fall from grace, due to the pressure from the experienced teams surrounding them. Schalke will probably trend upward and Gladbach downward from this point, but this match will probably end level.
Real Madrid vs. Sevilla
The new Super Cup champions return to Spain to be greeted by a top four match up and their resumed title race.
Real Madrid return after a successful trip to Saudi Arabia, winning a trophy despite some key absences. The absence list grows longer, however, as young star Federico Valverde will be suspended from this match, stemming from the red card he received for his match-saving tackle against Atletico Madrid. Hazard, Asensio, and Benzema remain injured, but it is believed that Jovic, Bale, and Ramos could be fit in time to feature. They went through a bit of a tough stretch before the winter break, and despite that, they remained level on points with Barcelona. Knowing this, and witnessing their triumph in Saudi Arabia, Zidane has to feel confident about his team’s title chances moving forward.
Sevilla continue to struggle from a lack of a clear first choice striker. As of right now, Munas Dabbur has left the club, Luuk de Jong continues to underperform, and Javier Hernandez looks set to leave the club for MLS. On top of this struggle, they will be without Lucas Ocampos, who misses the match due to yellow card accumulation, and Joan Jordan, who is injured. In better news, Ever Banega and Olivier Torres should be fit to feature in midfield, while star center back Diego Carlos should also return to the team. To get a result away at the Bernabeu, they will have to frustrate Real Madrid through a strong defensive performance and hope that they can create chances on the counter that Munir can finish.
Prediction: In Saudi Arabia, Real Madrid demonstrated that they can win in different ways and not completely relying on Karim Benzema’s goalscoring. The 451 formation employed by Zidane against Valencia and Atletico Madrid seemingly brought the best out of several players in the team, including a revitalized Luka Modric and Isco. Valverde, their breakout star of the season, will be a huge absence, but Real Madrid have the strength in depth to make due for one match.
Real Madrid 2-0 Sevilla
Augsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund
With all of the storylines circling around Borussia Dortmund this season, it is hard to remember that Augsburg are only five points off the Europa League Qualifier place. This match is vital for both teams to set the tone for the Rückrunde and continue their respective battles in the table.
Augsburg have enjoyed life under Martin Schmidt this season. The Swiss manager needed time to find a successful formula, but he eventually did. Before their 3-1 loss to Leipzig to end the Hinrunde, Augsburg had been unbeaten in their previous six in the league, and he also led them to an impressive 2-2 draw with Bayern in October. Augsburg find themselves comfortably mid table and within reach of Leverkusen for the Europa League Qualifiers position. Florian Niederlechner and Phillip Max have been sensational for the Bavarians this season, and they will be the difference makers if Augsburg were to find a result. Augsburg go into this match knowing their poor history against Dortmund, having only won two of their last 15 matches against them, but they also remember their 2-1 home win over them last season. While they will not be favorites to win this, Augsburg go into this match knowing they have the individual quality to catch Dortmund slipping up.
In case you have not been paying attention recently, Dortmund made a fairly high-profile signing. Norwegian forward Erling Braut Håland joined the club from Austrian side RB Salzburg during the winter break, and this match will most likely be his Dortmund debut. He only began full training in the last week, so he will most likely not start the match, but he will undoubtedly feature at some point, especially if Dortmund are searching for a goal. Dortmund have only won two of their last eight away from home, and the pressure is mounting on Lucien Favre and his men to pick up the pace and catch up to runaway Leipzig. Questions have continued to circle around star midfielder Jadon Sancho, and while he does not appear to be leaving the club in January, his future in Germany remains in doubt. In other news, midfielder Axel Witsel and club captain Marco Reus return to the team from injury, but injury to Thomas Delaney and the departure of Julian Weigl leave the team thin in defensive midfield. Their success since moving to a 343 should help alleviate this, especially if youngster Dan-Axel Zagadou maintains his strong form. Witsel and the defense will be crucial in ensuring Dortmund grab hold of the match and maintain control. This is a must-win match for Dortmund if they want to stay in the title race.
Prediction: This is an important match for Augsburg in their hunt for Europe, but this is absolutely critical for Dortmund in their quest to even get back into the title race. The pressure is on them, and that tends to not be a good thing for Favre’s men, as shown by their loss against Augsburg last season. There will definitely be goals in this match, but I feel Dortmund will find the winner. The three at the back formation will give them just enough security to keep some control, and they will eventually find a winner.
A Håland winner to cap off a dream debut? Do not rule it out.
Augsburg 1-2 Borussia Dortmund
West Ham vs. Everton
The battle between the two teams we thought could challenge the top six but have disappointed us completely. Another match up between David Moyes and the club that made his career. Another chance for boiled over anger and frustration from the two most (rightfully so) angry fanbases in England. I cannot wait.
West Ham had so much promise. Having kept several key players from last season, including Felipe Anderson and Declan Rice, as well as adding in Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals as talented imports, the Hammers were among the favorites to finish as the “best of the rest” team, or to even possibly break into the top six. One disappointing half-season later, and the Irons are in a relegation scrap, have sacked manager Manuel Pellegrini, and have reappointed David Moyes to replace him. Moyes has an injury crisis of his own on his hands, having to possibly do without Lukasz Fabianski, Michail Antonio, Arthur Masuaku, and Felipe Anderson, as well as the still-injured Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere. Pablo Fornals and Issa Diop should both be available for selection, and they will be faced with the responsibility of stabilizing attack and defense for this team. Without Anderson, Fornals will, along with Manuel Lanzini, have to create opportunities for Haller up top. Diop and retuning goalkeeper Darren Randolph will have to come in and stabilize a defense that had been leaking goals recently. They will also hope for a better performance from Declan Rice compared to his poor showing at Goodison Park earlier in the season. David Moyes really does have his work cut out for him.
It feels like we keep saying that Everton have reached a new low, but I truly do think their 1-0 loss at Anfield in the FA Cup was the true nadir of this Everton generation, where it became apparent how tough of a job Carlo Ancelotti has on his hands. With that being said, though, they are still only three points off 7th, and while Wolves and Sheffield United are currently flying, the rest of the teams ahead of them can realistically be overtaken. They have only lost once in the league since Marco Silva was sacked in early December. Important players, such as Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, and Mason Holgate, are finding form. Their injury crisis could be alleviated soon, with Alex Iwobi and Jean-Philippe Gbamin potentially returning to the first team fold very soon. There are reasons to be optimistic. It will be tough for them to really storm up the table without additions in the transfer window, and their away form is still a concern. Matches like this are ones where Ancelotti’s men have to find a way through in order to advance up the table. It will be important for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison to continue their strong partnership against a West Ham defense known to be shaky at times, and the center backs who, at times, had issues containing Andy Carroll in their meeting against Newcastle, will have to be better against the quite tall Sebastien Haller. Their 2-0 win over the Hammers at Goodison Park earlier in the season should offer some blueprint for Ancelotti to follow.
Prediction: This is probably not going to be an enjoyable match to watch. Both sides will be quite frustrating. There will probably only be one goal between these two teams, if there is a goal in this match. For one fan base, this will be a reprieve from stress and frustration, and for the other, it will only compound both. Given recent form and attacking potential, and despite their away form, it is hard to pick against Ancelotti and Everton here.
West Ham 0-1 Everton
Arsenal vs. Sheffield United
Another match up between two teams who have surprised us. Sheffield United have shocked us with a strong run into a fight for Europe in their first season in the Premier League, while Arsenal…well…yeah…
Mikel Arteta must be frustrated with how this team is making him look. He is definitely doing a good job as new Arsenal manager, and it is surprising how quickly his imprint has become visible in this team. Arsenal are attacking with more confidence, defending with more organization, and he is seemingly getting more out of the players than Emery did. However, Arsenal are still finding a way to mess everything up. They probably should have beaten Chelsea, but they fell apart at the end. They definitely should have beaten Crystal Palace, but they were seemingly suffering from a combination of bad luck and inability to get out of their own way, mentally speaking. Their dominant 2-0 win over Manchester United is a sign of what they can do under Arteta, but there is still quite a bit of growing to do. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s red card against Palace could be catastrophic, as they must learn how to cope without their talismanic striker for the next three games. In his absence, Alexandre Lacazette must break his goal scoring drought if Arsenal want to climb back up the table. In more positive news, Sead Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, and Lucas Torreira could all be fit and return to the team. The return of Kolasinac and Bellerin could be very important, as Arsenal have been coping without any first team fullbacks for some time.
Well, how about Sheffield United, huh? We keep saying Chris Wilder’s men will lose their head of steam and fall away from the top five, but nope, they’re still here. They keep finding ways to, for the most part, pick up points in matches and string solid enough performances together. They have found consistent goalscoring from all of their strikers, with Frenchman Lys Mousset probably being the pick of the bunch through this point in the season, and their midfield and defense, anchored by young star Dean Henderson in goal, have been a solid foundation to maintain results. It will prove to be a much more interesting tactical battle than the previous meeting between these two, with Wilder’s overlapping center backs coming up against a high-pressing Arteta side. Sheffield United will aim to hurt Arsenal down the flanks, especially if their first team fullbacks do not return, and then they will hope to sit back and defend a lead, as they did at Bramall Lane earlier in the season.
Prediction: This match is much more important for Arsenal than for Sheffield United. Wilder’s men are playing with house money at this point. If they make the European places, that is great, but if they miss out, that is also fine. Arsenal, on the other hand, face the pressure of needing to get back into Europe somehow, with the possible looming specter of a relegation race in the back of their minds. Home matches, especially against newly promoted teams, will be very important for the Gunners, given their appalling away form in the last few years. However, without Aubameyang and with Lacazette in such poor form, it is hard to see Arsenal not being frustrated by Sheffield United, as they were earlier in the season.
Arsenal 1-1 Sheffield United
Brighton vs. Aston Villa
Another crucial match in England, but this time at the other end of the table, sees 18th travel to 14th in a true relegation six-pointer.
Despite three losses in their last five, things do not seem to be in a massive crisis mode for the Seagulls, especially when compared to the team they are facing. Even though they lost to a somewhat mediocre Everton side, they did have positives they could draw from the match, especially from the second half, where they had Everton on the ropes and could have found an equalizer near the end. Iranian forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh has finally broken his Premier League goal drought, and he will be looked to as a support option for Neal Maupay and Leandro Trossard going forward. The defense of Duffy and Dunk is still good enough to help them stay up, with Lewis Dunk in particular doing enough to possibly earn himself a move elsewhere in the summer. Midfielder Aaron Mooy could also return to the team, which would be a massive boost for Graham Potter’s men. They have only lost three times at home all season, and they will be confident in maintaining that record.
Comparatively, everything seems to be falling apart at the seams for Aston Villa. Season-ending injuries to striker Wesley and goalkeeper Tom Heaton have left them thin in both positions. The loan acquisition of Milan goalkeeper Pepe Reina should alleviate the goalkeeping concerns, but the shock potential departure of Jonathan Kodjia to Qatari club Al Gharafa only makes their striker issue even worse. Manager Dean Smith will no doubt be unhappy with the manner that Villa went down in their last match, a 6-1 dismantling at the hands of Manchester City. Everything just seems to be going wrong for them. They are only three points behind Brighton, so this match is a true six pointer in this circumstance. If Villa want to stay up, they have to win, and much of the responsibility for the rest of this season is going to be planted squarely on the shoulders of Jack Grealish. If Villa win this game, and if they stay up, it will be because of him.
Prediction: Yes, Brighton have not been in the best of form recently, but I think it is clear that they are relatively stable compared to Villa. I see a clear winner here.
Brighton 3-0 Aston Villa
Napoli vs. Fiorentina
Seemingly falling into a theme of clubs wanting to rebound from disappointing first halves of the season, Napoli and Fiorentina meet in a mid-table match up between teams desperate to turn it around.
To be completely fair to Gennaro Gattuso, he is not doing a terrible job in his role. The craziness of the first half of the season for Napoli, leading to Ancelotti’s sacking, put Gattuso in a difficult position, but it is clear that the team is slowly improving under him, even if the results are not going his way. As a team, they were alright against Inter and Lazio, but the individual errors committed by the Napoli players were enough for those two strong teams to pounce on. He now has a bit of an injury and suspension crisis on his hands though, as he will be without Kalidou Koulibaly, Mario Rui, Dries Mertens, and Alex Meret for this match. Some players, namely Spanish starlet Fabian Ruiz, are still struggling for form. The defense, especially without Koulibaly, is still prone to individual errors. Apart from Juventus next week, the fixture list does begin to lighten for Napoli, so if they are to salvage anything from this season, it has to begin here.
Things have not gone much better for Fiorentina. They sacked manager Vincenzo Montella before Christmas, having brought in well-traveled manager Guiseppe Iachini to see out the rest of the season. They have struggled to find goals, with no player having scored four or more league goals this season. Under Montella, their defense had been leaky at times, leading to some lopsided results, including a 4-1 loss to Roma and a 5-2 loss to Cagliari. Among the rare bright spots for la Viola are midfielders Gaetano Castrovilli and Erick Pulgar, who have enjoyed impressive seasons and are currently two of Fiorentina’s four joint-top goalscorers. They should be key in winning the midfield battle against Napoli’s out-of-form midfield three. While he is not having the best of seasons, forward Federico Chiesa still possesses bundles of talent, and he could score a decisive goal against a Napoli defense known for individual mistakes recently.
Prediction: There will most definitely be goals. Just like in their previous meeting, it should be quite entertaining. I see this as a match where Napoli come from behind, and they will score a late goal to rescue a point.
Napoli 2-2 Fiorentina
Nantes vs. Lyon
The tie of the round in the Round of 32 in the Coupe de France, simply because it is the only one containing two at least halfway decent Ligue 1 teams, Lyon travels to Brittany in a match that could be a momentum-swinger for both teams in pursuit of the podium places.
Nantes have enjoyed a strong season and are directly in the middle of the clogged battle for the podium. Coming off of a comprehensive 2-0 win away to Saint-Etienne and having won four of their last six in all competitions, Christian Gourcuff’s men will not be short on confidence. Ludovic Blas and Moses Simon were both great against Saint-Etienne, and while they were without striker Kalifa Coulibaly, he could possibly return for this match. A win against a side like Lyon could further propel les Canaris in the league.
Lyon have been fairly inconsistent throughout the season, but they are coming off of possibly their best performance under Rudi Garcia in a 2-1 win over Bordeaux in the league. Despite injuries to Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, they looked very strong going forward, with Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembele, and Maxwel Cornet on fine form at the minute. The emergence of academy graduate Maxence Caqueret in midfield has provided a solid platform for Lyon to attack from and added a capable ball winner into the midfield, while also keeping the out-of-form Lucas Tousart out of the team. While their defense, notably Joachim Andersen, is still quite shaky, their attack has found the confidence and form necessary to score enough to win most matches.
Prediction: This will be quite a tight match, and there is enough justification for either team to come out as winners. This is a tough stretch of matches for Lyon, but the importance of the cups for them this season will probably mean that Garcia fields the strongest team available. If fatigue is a factor, Nantes will be able to pounce. Despite this, I do believe Lyon have the quality to find a winner, and will be the team moving on to the Round of 16.
Nantes 1-2 Lyon